Although the Soviet Union collapsed more than 25 years ago, Russians are still not ready to accept some former Soviet republics as separate independent states. The Baltic countries, the Caucasus and Central Asia are viewed as more or less separate social and cultural entities. However, it becomes more complicated when we look at countries whose mentality and culture are so to speak closer to Russia’s, namely Ukraine and Belarus. Nearly half of the people polled by Radio Liberty (RFE) on the streets of Moscow replied that they did not perceive Ukraine as an independent state. Why is this attitude still so widespread in Russia?
Over the past two years, relations between Russia and Ukraine have declined steadily and have reached rock bottom in the long history of both countries. Viktor Mironenko, Candidate of Historical Studies from the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences believes that the origin of the current conflict goes back centuries:
“Russia and Ukraine are bound by a long and common history, that is, I refer to most of modern Ukraine with the exception of Western Ukraine. Relations between the two ethnic groups, which used to be called Great Russians and Little Russians (великороси і малороси), evolved in a difficult way. For more than two centuries, the majority of the population in Tsarist Russia belonged to the peasant class – more than 90 percent. And yet, even though they were miserable and oppressed, they felt somewhat “comforted” by the fact that others were even lower than them. Then and now, Russians generally thought and think that “Little Russians (Ukrainians) and White Russians (Belarusians) are more or less equal co-religionists, but still a little lower on the social scale than them. Unfortunately, this idea of Russian predominance has been preserved and transmitted from generation to generation.”
The arrogance and “big brother” complex that Russians inherited from the tsarist and soviet periods continue to thrive in the Russian mind. Russian political scientist and sociologist Tatiana Vorozheykina refers to this complex as phantom imperial nostalgia.
“Everything that ever was Russia, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union – conquered or annexed – was considered ours. This applies to both the general public and those who see themselves as Russian democrats and liberals. I remember very well when Anatoliy Sobchak spoke angrily on August 24, 1991, immediately after the attempted coup in Moscow, when Ukraine declared its independence (Anatoliy Sobchak (1937–2000) was a Russian politician, the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg, and a mentor and teacher of both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev-Ed.). What he said to Ukraine’s leaders was quite clear: set up a democracy first, and then we’ll talk about independence. That’s the typical arrogant attitude all Russian leaders have towards Ukraine. It pains me to hear such things.”
Ms Vorozheykina draws attention to the fact that Russian intellectuals often use a patronizing instructive tone when speaking of the Ukrainian government and its leaders. She also feels that Russian society is responsible for the ongoing aggression against their neighbour.
“What right do we have to give Ukraine advice? We are the aggressor country! We, as a society, also share responsibility for this aggression because we have failed to prevent it or stop it. We have no anti-war movement in the country!”
Russia launched its most powerful and widespread propaganda campaign after the annexation of Crimea and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Russian viewers were exposed to nothing but one-sided and biased reports by federal television channels. It is no wonder that Russians have become so poisoned by official propaganda that they are afraid to travel to Ukraine. The population is literally “fed” unfair and discriminatory television images. Political scientist Viktor Mironenko believes that such a warped perception of their neighbour – Ukraine – and of the world in general can cause serious and sometimes irreparable consequences in Russian society.
Russians became divided after the events of 2014 in Ukraine. This division is obvious not only in different social strata, but also in families. Propagandists were ready and started playing with the imperial complex that has lain in the depths of Russian consciousness for so many years.
“It is this complex – this unshakable imperial complex – that runs through all strata of our society. It was enhanced and strengthened through propaganda after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. I think there’s a very fine psychological line here. In principle, it’s difficult for a normal person to grab something that doesn’t belong to him. But, it becomes much easier if you’re repeatedly told that it’s yours, and only yours, that it’s definitely not somebody else’s.”
They say that time heals all wounds, but in 25 years of independence Russia and Ukraine have not moved any closer, and in fact, have drifted further apart. No one is even trying to predict how soon the two neighbouring countries will return to normal relations. It may take another 25 years or more… Many Ukrainians believe that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has buried the concept of “brotherly nations”, and has pointed them in completely different directions.